SOMETIMES you meet people who affect you strongly, for one reason or another.
Weeks ago I wrote about a friend of a friend, Emma, who has anorexia. She and two others have formed The Only Way is Up Foundation, with the aim of supporting young women and men with eating disorders.
Emma told me how she controlled her eating until she weighed less than three stones. Imagine that – less than three stones. I look at my nephew, who is three, and think he can't be far off a similar weight. I can pick him up and throw him around. Emma was 20, she was a woman.
She starved herself, refusing to acknowledge there was a problem, until one day she collapsed in the street and, as the traffic loomed towards her, scrambled to get up and failed. Her father scooped her up and at that point she said to him: "I don't think I'm very well."
To get herself healthy again has been a struggle, hard fought. She said to me, of the time during recovery: "All I saw was this monster. I was frightened of people seeing me. I was this carcass, this body. It was the most disgusting feeling."
Emma and the foundation have featured in several national papers, a clutch of magazines and she has been on television. It is no secret the media are keen on an eating disorder story – they are easy to illustrate, have a neat story arc (tragic death or amazing recovery) and involve an element of celebrity-bating ("skinny celebs"). But the reality is not so neat. Despite reaching a healthy weight Emma had missed her education, her friends had drifted away and her confidence was annihilated. To cope, she entered beauty pageants.
"I walked taller and held my head more proudly," she said. "I'll never look in the mirror and love myself but I do look in the mirror and think I'm glad to be here."
I have always scorned beauty pageants as anti-intellectual, brazenly equating a woman's worth with her appearance. Yet here is Emma using the approval gained from such events to steer towards recovery.
Therein lies the essential difficulty with young men and women, eating disorders and the impossibly tricky business of rehabilitation. It is reported that ever younger children are being treated for eating disorders, young men and women are feeling ever more pressure to be thin and attractive. Emma hopes to start going into schools to give talks and attempt to head this off at the pass, sharing that disordered eating is a means of controlling perceived disorder, of expressing and dealing with unhappiness.
Where one person might view the contestants in a beauty pageant as conforming to an unhealthy stereotype, others see them as an impossible ideal and one, at least, uses the construct to bolster her own self-worth.
Emma's experience is horrific yet heartening: a doctor once described her as "the best anorexic" he had met, yet she survived. Speaking to her was eye-opening for the simple fact she illustrates how complicated and multi-faceted are the causes of eating disorders and how varied the solutions. And a benefit too, to be reminded not to judge too harshly or quickly: one woman's sexism is another woman's lifesaver.
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